Saturday, June 4, 2022

Magic Swords, Proficiencies, and the 1e DMG

This is actually like three short posts about magic swords rolled in to one.

  • I've been thinking about trying to organize some in-person D&D, and OSE is probably an easier sell than ACKS in this part of the world.  So in the absence of proficiencies, my previous post about magic items in place of proficiencies has been back on my mind.
  • If I also wanted to keep cleaving in an otherwise mostly-stock B/X game, that might also be a good thing to attach to magic swords.  At first wag, something like three cleaves per round per point of bonus seems likely to keep pace with 1 cleave per HD at least up to name level.  This has a number of other interesting properties:
  • Second, there was a discussion in discord recently about sentient swords.  Thinking about magic swords through the lens of "class proficiencies for fighters and thieves that clerics and MUs don't get", sentient swords are actually a restricted form of spellcasting for non-caster classes.  I think they're really important, that using them should generally not be a hassle, and neglecting to roll for them is a contributing factor to caster superiority.  The whole ego / conflict of wills mechanic is to keep high-level powers out of the hands of low-level fighters, and to keep fighters from amassing too many spell-like abilities by having multiple sentient swords. 
  • I've been skimming the 1e AD&D DMG recently, because it also keeps coming up in various discussions.  I went and looked in the treasure tables because I was curious about how it handled sentient swords, and several things struck me:
    • 25% of swords are "unusual" (sentient).  This is in the same ballpark as B/X's 30%, but much higher than ACKS or later editions.
    • "All abilities function only when the sword is held, drawn, and the possessor is concentrating on the desired result."  This isn't "ask the sword nicely to use its powers".
    • AD&D computes willpower score differently - sum of a character's Int and Wis scores plus their level (with the level bonus reduced by damage taken).  This means that cap for character willpower/personality score is basically unbounded!
      • A "typical" random sentient sword has about 13 Int, empathic communication, two detection abilities and an Ego of 3 or so, and is reasonably useable even by a low-level fighter of average mental stats.
    • "N.B. Most players will be unwilling to play swords with personalities as the personalities dictate. It is incumbent upon the DM to ensure that the role of the sword is played to the hilt"
      • har har
  • Reading the 1e DMG's magic swords, I was also struck how a number of them had effects that activate on a natural 20.
    • This wraps back around to limiting the scope of proficiency-like exceptional cases by making them magic items.  Rather than taking Weapon Focus in order to get the ability to crit, it's a property of some swords.
    • Making crits a property of magic weapons means monsters aren't critting PCs, which is the usual trouble with critical hit rules.
    • It also means you can have a variety of critical hit special effects, like vorpal's save-or-die vs the sword of life stealing's level drain on crit, without needing a complex critical hits table or system.  These effects can also be quite fantastical, since they're magical in origin.
    • This might also be a reasonable way to handle combat-maneuver like effects.  Magic hammers that sunder weapons on a natural 20, axes that break shields, rapier of disarming, magic shield that knocks foes down when they nat 1 against you, ...
  • Magic swords might also be a reasonable way to sneak backstab multiplier scaling into B/X, where even a max-level thief only does x2 damage.  idk whether I'd want to make just particular backstabbing swords that boost it, or something as simple as "a thief backstabbing with a sword +1 multiplies the die roll by x3 instead of x2, +2 -> x4, +3 -> x5".

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Material Components in the Wilderness Levels

I wish I could say this was my idea but I'm happy to give credit where credit is due and just preserve/propagate/expand it.

Olle Skogren had a proposal in discord recently about requiring expensive material components for spellcasting in ACKS, their prices scaling exponentially with spell level.

This is both meant to make magic a non-free resource, which normally is wasted if you don't use it daily, to differentiate profane and sacred magic [by the different types of components required] and to make lengthy adventures logistically problematic for casters as you need at first backpack space for reagents, then a mule load and finally cartloads.

Emphasis mine - as that was the bit that most caught my attention.

I could take or leave the exponential cost scaling.  I think just having material components with mass that you have to haul into the wilderness seems like a super-viable solution to my issues with the spellcasting resource model in the wilderness game [1][2], where spellcasters can dump their full load onto any wilderness encounter because you very seldom have more than one encounter per day.  Material components are a resource that is attritable on scales of weeks; they create a limit on total spells expended during a particular expedition, without reducing the total amount of spell-power an MU can bring to bear in any one tactical engagement.  And they're super-associative; they're object in the game-world, no need to impose wonky spell-point recovery systems that operate differently in the wilderness and civilization, or argue about what constitutes an adventure for purposes of spells-per-adventure.  And since they're items-in-the-world, they interact with market mechanics, and their encumbrance introduces tradeoffs around speed vs preparedness.

At the bare minimum of complexity, where all components are an abstracted "spell components" item just measured in weight with a fixed cost per stone (maybe arcane components and divine components), it would not be hard at all to add to the wilderness logistics spreadsheet.  And then you could set up the material component costs of spells by level, so that maybe 1st level spells don't use them (so MUs have something always fall back on), and then component-mass required ramps up with spell level.  Or set up material component costs per spell, like Wolves of God does with its spellcasting system (I forget what he calls the points expended to cast, but spells of the same level cost significantly-varying numbers of points) - so sleep and fireball could have their high utility balanced by having to expend component-mass, whereas your lower-tier combat spells like burning hands might be free or just inexpensive.

One could, of course, go the traditional / AD&D route, where particular spells had particular components and they weren't interchangeable.  This would be an interesting avenue to introduce a layer of Vancian-style planning on top of ACKS' spell repertoire system.  And then non-consumed/focus components (like the amber rod and rabbit fur for lightning bolt) dictate how many parallel/simultaneous castings of a spell your collected MUs can drop in a single round.  But I don't know that I need that degree of precision to solve my wilderness-level problem.

This seems like the sort of thing where I should jump up and down and yell "Gygax knew!"  This is exactly the sort of "crufty old mechanic that nobody uses turns out to be critically important" thing that this blog was started onGygax's Fence, if you will.  But I'm actually not sure.  The 1e DMG's encumbrance section (page 255) notes that material components aren't assumed to encumber unless they're unusually bulky.  I guess that yeah, if you're going to have spell-specific components, that would be a lot of paperwork.  And then I suppose the limiting factor on number of casts worth of a particular component that you'd bring on a wilderness adventure was cost, maybe?  Maybe in the misty dawn era before the shared Google Sheet of party encumbrance, it was hard to get players to actually honestly track it, whereas gold was an easier thing for a DM to keep account of, since you know how much each PC earned each adventure, and you can know how much they spend on each transaction.

But the age of the spreadsheet is come...

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Red Nails

I don't read much fiction, but someone recently pointed out that several of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories are available for free from Project Gutenberg.  I had previously read The Hour of the Dragon, the most-downloaded of the lot, and found it alright but not great.  The seams of the serial structure in which it was originally published showed through pretty hard.  The next most-read on Gutenberg was Red Nails.

I enjoyed Red Nails quite a bit (with the usual caveats about '30s pulp fiction), but more important, this is really good inspiration for old-school style dungeoncrawls.  Without spoiling anything, there's a multi-level dungeon with competing factions, and those factions aren't monolithic, precisely in the way that dungeon factions are talked about in the OSR blogosphere.  There are also a couple neat ideas for magic items and dungeon set dressing pieces.  The dungeon bits of Hour of the Dragon don't hold a candle to this.

The Appendix N entry for Howard doesn't call out particular Conan stories, but I have to imagine that if it did, this one would've made the cut.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Market Availability and Diminishing Returns

Status: speculative proposal

From another of Rick Stumps' posts that I enjoyed:

Most of the light sources in the Mountain ended up being torches, then candles because they bought all the oil in the region and the few torch makers couldn't keep up with demand. Food prices in Esber skyrocketed because they bought all the smoked ham, salted fish, and cheese to be had for ever-increasing prices. They also stripped the area of oats and sheep tallow, making the local favorite breakfast (unleavened oatcakes fried in sheep tallow) rare and angering many...

The party also hired factors (merchants that buy and sell for you) in 5 towns and cities, bought an inn within Esber as a base and storehouse; met with the local Baron and Bishop to smooth things over  with them, and; gave generously to the poor affected by the lack of food...

If I simply said, "Don't worry about food, water, light, or time. Let's just play." None of that happens. They don't have ties to NPC factors in five towns and cities (that have already triggered 3 more adventures), no meeting with the baron and bishop, no interaction with farmers, or the beggars, no long argument with the muleskinners about if they should get paid as much as light infantry if they also fought the kobolds, no stash of 3,000 gp worth of gear on Level Three, none of it.

Obviously, any ACKS enthusiast is on board with limiting the amount of stuff available for purchase in a market every month.  But except for mercenaries, there isn't really a system for having prices rise as a result of buying up particular goods.  What would such a system look like, with a minimum of book-keeping?

ACKS' equipment availability table is a reasonable starting point for availability without any price increase.  Just at a wag, after buying all normal availability for the month, we might let players roll availability again, but now the goods cost twice as much per unit.  Then triple, then quadruple, up to a hard cap of say x10 (one of ACKS' underlying assumptions is that adventurers generally only have access to about 1/10th of the market).  The next month, take the highest multiple paid for a particular good, decrease it by 1, and that's the new starting multiple.

For example,


A mule is 20gp.  A class 4 market has one of each item between 11gp and 100gp per month.  So the first mule costs 20 gp.  The second mule costs 40 gp, the third 60, etc.  The party ends up buying 5 mules for a total price of 300gp - which would've been enough to buy 15 mules if they hadn't been in a hurry.  Next month, they return to the same market and a mule still costs 80gp, and even if price were no object, only six can be bought (at 4x, 5x, 6x, ... 10x the normal price).

One wrinkle here is substibility of goods.  If the party buys up the entire stock of plate mail and drives the price through the roof, people who would buy plate are going to buy banded mail instead, and smiths who would make banded are going to make plate instead, and prices for banded are going to rise too.  So it might make sense to put goods in buckets, and raise prices for the whole bucket.  In Rick's example, "food" is the bucket.  But on the other hand, a lot of goods aren't really substible; a light riding horse and a medium riding horse fill quite different needs, even though they're both mounts.  So maybe it isn't worth worrying about - the players themselves are likely to think hard about substituting banded mail for plate when it's a quarter the price.

Open questions:

Is it worth it to track price multiples across months?  Should the multiple decline differently based on how "connected" the market is to trade networks?  Is linear price growth right, or should be it exponential or something?  How do price multiples interact with hiring henchmen?  Could switching to per-season availability or something lessen the book-keeping here?  Is this competitive with just commissioning goods (the stock ACKS way to circumvent market limits)?  How does the venturer interact with this (maybe he just gets you access to extra goods at one lower price multiplier)?  Heuristics for effects of standing price multiples on domain morale, or a system for having them queue trouble?

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Seasonal Overland Travel Times

I stumbled upon Rick Stump's blog recently.  There's a lot of good stuff here!  There was a line from this post that got me thinking:

This means that if there is a good road directly between me and, oh, the market 8 miles away if I leave at sunrise (call it 6:30) and want to return home by sunset (call it 8:45) [I am using the sunrise/set times for Seaward for this time of year] then I wouldn't get to the market until about 9:30 and need to leave by 5:45.

As I've noted elsewhere [2], I'm always looking for more ways to inject seasonality into the wilderness game.  And varying travel per day with available daylight makes a lot of sense!  Taking fall and spring with ~12 hours of daylight per day as your baseline, we'd see negligible seasonal change in available travel time per day in the tropics, but even as far south as Miami, the shortest day of the year is 10 and a half hours, while the longest is around 13 and a half.  So that's a difference of 12.5%, an eighth.  Up here the shortest day of the year is around 8 and a half hours, while the longest is more like 15 and a half.  So just on the basis of having more or less daylight, something like a 30% reduction in overland travel rate in the winter and a 30% increase in the summer would be reasonable at these latitudes.  Dealing with modifying travel speed by an eighth might not be worth the hassle, but 30% certainly seems big enough to warrant consideration!  For latitudes somewhere in between Miami and Seattle, something like a 20 or 25% modifier might be reasonable and fairly easy on the math.

And then if you're already figuring seasonal overland travel speed modifiers for daylight, you could also just abstract weather into that modifier, especially if operating on scales of weeks.

One could also make the slower (winter) speed the default, and then scale everything else up accordingly, since multiplying is easier than dividing.

(Granted - this ignores historical details like the afternoon halt during summer marches.  Maybe the difference between getting 12 hours of rest in the dark and getting eight at night in the summer plus four in the middle of the day doesn't work out to that big a difference in practice.  Maybe it makes sense as just a winter penalty, where your time to break and make camp cuts into your marching daylight time.  And then there are those rascals with infravision mucking things up as usual...)

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Senryu Backstories

How much backstory is too much backstory?  Especially in OSR games, where characters are likely to die at low levels?

I had been kicking around a proposal like "six words per level of experience", but an amusing idea occurred to me this morning.

Senryu is a form of Japanese poetry with three lines of five, seven, and five syllables (er...  technically morae, but trying to write english within mora counts that tight is not practical), typically about people and their vices (vs haiku, which are about nature and must include a season-word and a cutting-word).  They're pretty easy to put together and give you enough room to tell a little story that explains why you're adventuring without going into too much detail:

Orcs killed my parents
Shoulders that once pulled a plow
now carry plate mail

Chased too much elf tail
Washed out of wizard college
Student loans comes due

On long pilgrimage
Red-nosed cleric lost his way
Time to pay the tab

Won fast ship at cards
Dumped hot goods, now owe crime lord
When in doubt, shoot first

Rightful king of dwarves
Dragon haunts my father's halls
I will get what's mine.

Our lands disputed,
King turned 'gainst us, brother slain,
I sailed for far shores

One nice property of these, I think, is that it would get really hard to fit proper nouns with relations into them.  If you take a backstory senryu as canon, it might tell you that somewhere in the setting there are marauding orcs, a wizard college, a crime lord, or a dragon under the mountain, but it doesn't try to shove them into any particular place.  As a DM, it would be easy to link these up to any particular band of orcs, wizard college, crime lord, or fallen hold that you might already have planned.

And they're quick and fun to come up with, which makes them a relatively good fit for characters who might be short-lived.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Grim Dawn's Dungeon Blockers and Ye Olde Evil Doors

Grim Dawn does a couple of things in its dungeon that are sometimes annoying but fundamentally clever.  There are no randomly-generated maps in Grim Dawn.  The closest thing is a randomly-generated infinite dungeon, but each level is drawn from a pool of fixed level maps.  Given that a typical character runs through all of the campaign content in the game several times, in the traditional Diablo model, one would expect players to develop highly-efficient routes through the campaign area maps.

In order to prevent these repeatedly-traversed campaign zones from becoming stale without having to resort to random generation (with the difficulties that that would entail, like nonsensical outputs), the Grim Dawn devs have put places on some maps (mostly dungeons and towns, but a few wilderness areas) where random blockers can appear.  Piled of burning garbage, doorways that are full of rocks, that sort of thing.  They have the potential to appear in a fairly small number of carefully-selected spots in each dungeon, they're re-randomized per session (save and reload, basically, which also returns you to town), and generally you can't see them until you get fairly close to the spot they're blocking.  What all this means is that you can't consistently run optimal routes that you plan out before entering the dungeon.  There's a good chance that any such planned route will be blocked and you'll have to detour off it and then find a way back onto it, and your detour might also be blocked!  This means that finding paths remains gameplay even with hundreds of hours in the game and tens of runs through each area.  There are real choices and problem-solving in path-selection even when you have perfect knowledge of the unrandomized parts of the underlying level.  So despite having a constant underlying structure, navigating these areas remains engaging.

This seems like something which, obviously, could be adapted to OSR dungeons.  As DMs, we're under the same pressures to reuse content that Grim Dawn's devs were, and fully-procedural dungeons carry similar difficulties.  And it would be consistent with the No Homework ethos - no homework'd plan to traverse known parts of the dungeon will necessarily survive.  Reducing the rewards for homework is likely to reduce the amount of homework done.

Another clever, engaging thing that Grim Dawn does in its dungeons is find any excuse to have enemies "appear" in close proximity or behind you while you've engaged enemies in front of you.  Zombies, skeletons, and giant insects burrow out of the ground behind or around you.  Spiders drop from the ceiling.  Wraiths and outsiders materialize out of thin air.  Often these animations take long enough that if you're in motion, you can leave these appearing monsters in the dust and never have to deal with them.  This works great if you're running a nice planned path...  but when you run into a blocker and have to backtrack, or run into stern opposition, these guys can really catch up with you.  So blowing past them is a gamble, and they serve as a sort of potential energy mechanic.

But obviously, it would be silly to have goblins just appear out of nowhere near and behind you.  Unless...

Enter the much maligned stuck/evil door.  Obviously, goblins can come out of it on short notice!  And where better to place planned-path-breaking blockers than in doorways?  You could place your careful cut-points in hallways, but your dungeon already has all these doorways!  But it's not quite the same, because they're not blocked per-expedition, and a party can retry opening them.  Right?

Well...  not necessarily.  Looking at OD&D and the 1e DMG, it really isn't clear how long it takes to open a stuck/evil door, and doesn't explicitly say that it can be retried.  Not being able to retry forcing would give you a good reason to bring out the axes and exercise the door-breaking mechanic, so in a certain light the door-breaking mechanic's existence might be circumstantial evidence for rejecting retries on forcing doors.  And indeed there are apparently folks who play without permitting retries to open stuck doors - this post from Knight at the Opera, down in the "Dense Megadungeons" section, takes this position, and examines the effects on potential paths through the dungeon.  A door which the party failed to open on the first d6 roll was stuck closed to them for the rest of that expedition into the dungeon.  Knight at the Opera mapped out the paths that four expeditions had taken as a result of doors that they couldn't open.  Their patterns of exploration ended up deeper and more linear in structure than the patterns of dungeon exploration I'm used to seeing, because if they found a room with three doors, probably only one of them would open, so they explored where they were able, subject to door luck.  And obviously a door amenable to being opened by the party could then also be reopened within the same expedition (though it might require a roll that could be retried).

It's still not quite the same as Grim Dawn's dungeon blockers, but if you change the probabilities to something like 1 in 6 doors stuck (for the party) in any given expedition, I think you'd end up with a similar disruption of planned paths through explored areas and a similar excuse to have monsters sneak in behind parties, without wildly altering the pattern of exploration.  One complication is that you may want to leave all areas accessible during any given expedition, which could require sometimes rejecting a roll's result (if a stuck result would block the last path to an area).  But that's a rather principled sort of rejection of a random result, and one with good gameplay consequences (probably?).